Today is launch day for Tanya Byrne’s début book, Heart-Shaped Bruise, and reviews so far are pointing to it being an excellent book. Mine can be found here.
Q. Let’s start at the beginning – tell us in your own words about Heart-Shaped Bruise, and about Emily
A. Heart-Shaped Bruise is the story of Emily Koll, the most infamous inmate at Archway Young Offenders’ Institution. The daughter of North London gangster Harry Koll, everybody knows who she is and what she did to get sent to Archway, but after months of being written about in the newspapers and gossiped about at bus stops, she wants to tell her side of the story. So she begins writing it down in a notebook that she keeps hidden on top of the wardrobe in her cell. In the journal she explains why she did what she did and why she isn’t sorry at all.
Q. Where did your ideas for the novel come from?
A. Everywhere. Songs. Conversations I’ve overheard. The idea for Emily’s journal came from an article about Hurricane Katrina I read in a newspaper. There was a photograph of a battered wooden house with ‘Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes’ spray-painted onto the side of it. That’s what I made Emily do.
Q. Was it tempting to stick to the ‘normal’ YA subjects, or did you always want to write something different and darker?
A. I’m not sure there is a ‘normal’ YA subject, that’s the joy of YA. I’ve read books about everything from angels to anorexia. But I did set out to write something English. As much as I love authors like Laurie Halse Anderson and Sara Zarr and wish I’d had their books when I was a teenager, every time I finished one of their books I’d think, ‘Imagine if this was set in London!’ Then I read a quote from Toni Morrison that said: If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
So that’s what I did, I wrote a book about what it’s like to be a teenager in London, about having to get the bus and going to parties because clubs are so expensive and wandering around parks on a Wednesday afternoon because there’s nothing else to do. And that’s what Heart-Shaped Bruise is: it’s like every other YA book in that it’s about needing to be grown up when you don’t know how to be yet, but with more chips and onion vinegar.
Q. You chose a difficult subject to write about – what sort of research did you need to carry out?
A. I had to do a lot of research, not just into what life in a young offenders’ institution would be like, but also into Emily’s mental illness.
As the story unravels it’s easy to forget that she’s in a psychiatric unit, but she’s there because it’s thought that she has borderline personality disorder. She’s yet to be diagnosed; BPD is usually only diagnosed in adults, not in children or adolescents because the symptoms – mood swings, intense fear of abandonment, unstable sense of identity – may go away with maturity.
So instead of saying that Emily has BPD, I had to show you. All the symptoms are there – her paranoia, her confusion about who she is, the bookish, cello-playing school girl or the gangster’s daughter, feeling like she doesn’t belong, whether it’s at the gig with Sid and Juliet or at her old boarding school, doing things without thinking about the consequences, like what she did to get sent to Archway.
Emily puts this down to being evil, something she refers to herself as constantly in Heart-Shaped Bruise, and while the reader may not know that she has BPD, by the end of the book it should become clear that it’s so much more than Emily being evil. As always, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Q. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was it something you came to recently?
A. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I didn’t think I could, that girls like me, girls from East London who didn’t go to UEA could write book. I mean, I liked words and I knew what to do with them sometimes, in what order to put them in, but I didn’t think I could write a book, and even then, I didn’t think anyone would publish it. Turns out, all I had to do was try. There’s a lot to be said for being practical – sensible – but you’ll never know if something is within your grasp if you don’t try and reach for it.
Q. What comes next for you, can you tell us anything about your next project?
A. I’m currently working on my second book, which is another psychological thriller, this time about a teenage girl who goes missing. It’s more of mystery, but it has a twist at the end, like Heart-Shaped Bruise.
Q. You’re active on twitter – do you think an internet presence is important for an author – and do you try to have both personal and an author account, or do you combine?
A. This is an odd one. I’ve been on twitter for years, before I even started writing Heart-Shaped Bruise. I only finished the book last October, so it feels like I’m still making the transition from someone who reads YA books to someone who writes them. I don’t feel like I’m making an effort to do anything different; I was friends with book bloggers before. Yeah, I tweet about my book, but I don’t have a private account, so 95% of what I say is what I tweeted about before, usually who I fancy or what I’m watching on the telly. How important that is, I don’t know, I just know that I enjoy the banter on twitter, especially now I’m working on home. And if people see me as being approachable because I’m on there, that can’t be a bad thing.
Q. You’re attending an author event at Foyles in May – do you enjoy the contact with your readers?
A. It’s my first event, so ask me afterwards! Seriously though, I’m very much looking forward to it. I’m not sure how many people are going for me, but I hope they say hello if they do.
Q. Do you like reading yourself? Who are your favourite authors, and what’s on your bedside table right now?
A. I love reading. I read everything – Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, John Green, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dessen, Zadie Smith. I’ve just read Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez and on my bedside table I currently have Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and James Dawson’s Hollow Pike.
Q. And what else do you like to do in your spare time, when you’re not writing, reading or tweeting?
A. I work from home now so I need to see people, whether it’s friends for dinner or the theatre or the woman at the café at the top of my road who lets me talk her ear off whenever I go in!
Thank you for your time Tanya.
Find Tanya @tanyabyrne